Sunday, January 23, 2011

Movies: The Black Swan

Just before it opened this week I caught a preview of The Black Swan, the Natalie Portman movie which currently has posters all throughout the tube network. It is a gripping film about paranoia, fear, dedication and broken nails. Portman plays the role of Nina, who is coming to grips with the leading role in Swan Lake, while fearing her understudy played by the sexually provocative Mila Kunis.

You don't see much ballet so it is not a modern day The Red Shoes. It has more in common with films such as Polanski's The Tennant. The art is metaphor here and the central message surely has to be you can never try hard enough, as long as you stay away from broken mirrors and lesbian fantasies...

The debate about whether it remotely resembles anything of life in the ballet will continue. This is a movie so one suspects it is as far removed from reality as possible. Winnona Ryder is supposed to be a brilliant ballerina in her decline but spends her small amount of screen time looking unhappy and throwing around bitchy comments. It's hilarious if you take that she is talking about her own career. There is also Barbara Hershey who as Natalie Portman's mother looks creepy even before she says anything. It's all good fun in a slightly unnerving way so get the popcorn and go...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Opera: La Bohème

The first attempt to see La Bohème at the Cock Tavern last month was thwarted by snow (and the subsequent obligatory transport disruptions), so it was a relief to catch it at the Soho Theatre on Tuesday night to see what the fuss was all about.

This production of Boheme updates the story to the present day and is in English. The story is now in London Soho where poor struggling bloggers writers are trying to make ends meet. Mimi is an eastern European migrant worker who makes a bare living cleaning people's homes. When you read stories about homeless Poles eating rats, none of the problems the characters face in the opera seem far from the harsh realities for some of living in London today.

1000000548While the singing is good (but not great), what sets this show a cut above anything else is the passion and emotion the cast convey. There is an awful lot of energy and enthusiasm here...

At the end of the second act everyone is asked to make their way to the bar, and the show commences with such a bang that even knowing what comes next (either in this production or the opera) feels like such a surprise. It was particularly amusing to see people walking down Dean Street do a double take at watching Musetta fight with her much older lover through the glass windows. Even for the usual jaded passers by in Soho, it certainly was a novelty...

Returning back to the theatre for the final two acts, the mood shifts a gear and there are some great performances as the characters slowly realise that Mimi might actually be dying. The audience was on the edge of its seat and I suspect more than a few were holding back the occasional tear.

It is not the full opera and there isn't room in the Soho Theatre for a full orchestra, but this production grabs you and takes you on a trip with the Soho Bohos that is hard to resist. It plays until 20 February.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

First Impressions: la bohème at the Soho Theatre

First impressions below of an emotionally charged and thrilling night at the theatre. It's return run at the Soho Theatre is until 20 February. More later...



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Movies: 127 Hours

I caught the movie 127 Hours over the weekend. Directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco, the film is the real-life story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who became trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, for more than five days in 2003. Those familiar with the story know how he escapes but up to that point the movie is a great example of what not to do when messing about with nature. His escape had many people covering their eyes to avoid watching the movie at that point. I was later told that I was the only male doing this in the cinema, but I will insist that I was not. It was pretty gruesome and graphic and I could understand why those more sensitive movie-goers in Norwich might require medical attention...

Franco keeps this an intense but very entertaining movie throughout and you're with him all the way. While he isn't as sexy in this film as he is selling Gucci fragrances, there is something very likeable about the character he has created here. This role has to be one of those dream roles actors always wish to play, and Franco delivers.

The film leaves you wondering whether you have seen an extended commercial for an electrolyte drink or a documentary. Danny Boyle takes everything minute and blows it up on the big screen. Sometimes you will be covering your eyes (or dry retching), but most other times you will be fascinated at the detail. And if you are watching the above trailer and going to see the film (and not read the book), I recommend watching only the first two minutes...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Overheard on the bus Sunday

Girl on the telephone: I was like, "Excuse me but what kind of professional goes back and looks at detail like that?" I actually hate him... Just a little bit...

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Theatre: Totem, Cirque du Soleil

Wednesday evening was an opportunity to catch Cirque du Soleil's new production, Totem at the Royal Albert Hall. Since Johnnyfox is touring South America and probably not into acrobatics of this sort, Gio came along. It was a perfectly grey and wet evening and before taking our seats we decided to savour the damp and watch as the celebrities arrived. Well for me, that was mostly asking Gio, "Who's Katherine Jenkins?" and "Who's that?" I am pretty lousing recognising celebrities... But for the record, Katherine Jenkins (left) did look lovely in that yellow dress... Once I was given the lowdown of who she was...

Anyway I have until now been a cirque virgin. Sure I had seen La Clique at the Hippodrome and Soap at Hammersmith Studios. But after watching Wednesday's performance that featured a number of sexy acts including the trapeze duo pictured above, I was ready for a cigarette. Cirque du Soleil is not the only show in town that present these acts nowadays. La Clique and Soap were edgier and rougher versions of many of the same acts. But Cirque du Soleil does everything bigger, with more spectacle, live music and some incredible costumes, and this show succeeds at doing this... Mostly...

Linking the show is the story of a journey from amphibians to human acrobats. I am not so sure what it says about evolution, but it sure does look good. Earlier this year I enjoyed writer director Robert Lepage's visually beautiful The Rake's Progress, and this production didn't disappoint either in looking stunning and taking routines and injecting an emotional story to them. The projections of water and fire work very well and amphibians morph into acrobats.

On the down side there are a few less successful scenes such as an overlong segment involving Darwin morphing into a juggler of light bulbs balls. There is also a runaway flamenco dancer who looked like she escaped from Zefferelli's production of Carmen at Verona and was on the wrong set. The clowns did not hit the right note either with a surprising lack of comic timing in the second half. Perhaps the underwhelmed audience put them off, and it is probably never a good idea to pick on a cold fish in the front row to play off your comedy. One of them tried to make her laugh calling her beautiful but she was there obviously to be entertained rather than be part of the entertainment...

Still the businessmen on perches, the ladies on unicycles and the crystal ladies with the spinning tea-towels cloths all delivered incredibly thrilling performances. The downside to all these acts is that you expect it to be brilliant and overlook the degree of difficulty. I think we need some audience education with behind the scenes footage of the performers in the foyers amongst the merchandising stands. You don't get all that muscle and poise without an awful lot of practice...

The show runs until February 17 and is definitely the best looking thing playing in London right now.

Photo: Daniel Desmarais © 2010 Cirque du Soleil Inc.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

First impressions: Totem: Cirque du Soleil

It was survival of the acrobats at Totem, Cirque du Soleil's latest production which opened tonight at Royal Albert Hall. This spectacular show traces the journey of humans from amphibians to acrobats in glittering costumes. It all goes to show that we have come a long way (or at least some of us have). The comedy relief was more hit than miss so in this evolutionary tale the acrobats are ahead. First impressions below...



Monday, January 03, 2011

Movies: Burlesque

I went along to see Burlesque on New Year's Day as I figured it would be camp and it would be crap. I was not disappointed. Leaving the cinema three other women were chatting to us commenting how dreadful they thought the film was. I was not sure what they were expecting in this Moulin Rouge meets Chicago meets Cabaret meets Devil Wears Prada meets Glitter musical about air rights and condos in downtown Los Angeles.

Watching it as an extended music video of Christina Aguilera songs is probably the best way to see this film... Along with watching it with a group of people after a few cocktails. Drink will help ease the pain of the plot and that dialogue... It is also a pity that the very talented supporting cast is not allowed to do some more scene chewing. Instead we are stuck with some very creepy scenes of Cher playing den mother and helping Christina put on lip gloss... All without moving any facial muscles... This is so bad... It is kinda good... I can't wait for the singalonga version...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Opera: Tannhäuser

The hours seemed to fly by watching the Royal Opera's new production of Tannhäuser on Monday evening. The opera about man's dilemma between passion and purity is told on a grand scale with an enormous cast and all are in very fine voice. Johan Botha in the title role is the man unhappy with the excess of Venusburg and unsatisfied with harsh earthly realities. There is no pleasing some people I suppose, but he manages to give this story credibility and power throughout the four hours of the performance.

The production itself is minimal with the orgiastic excess of Venus's grotto Venusburg limited to the Royal Opera's velvet curtain and a rather large dining table. When a sensual and athletic ballet emerges from what started to look like a gala dinner at the opera you couldn't help but wonder if all opera fundraisers are that fun. If there was only one disappointment here it was thinking that Venus (the lovely Michaela Shuster) should not be in a dinner dress as it just wasn't as hot as everything else being served up. Not that she could not cut through the most loudest of bellows from the orchestra. As for the ballet, it not only looked great, but you couldn't help but be impressed by it's ability to set the story. It did not look easy either and I was exhausted just watching them. Given Tannhäuser was also a big man, you could understand why he was exhausted with all the goings on in Venusburg as well...

Of course back at the earthly Wartburg the grass was not greener. Nor was the shepherd boy who heralds Tannhäuser's return to the Wartburg particularly melodic. But particularly nice about this version was the Eva-Maria Westbroek's ambivalent sexuality she conveyed as Elisabeth. It will be fascinating to see what she does in the upcoming production Anna Nicole. Again the simplicity of the production design adds to its wonder. The song contest at the Wartburg was so dramatic, with parallels drawn to a more recent European war a nice touch. Aiding to the drama was the fine voice of Christian Gerhaher in the role of Wolfram, who remains in love with Elisabeth (just to keep things a little complicated).

While at times the opera grinds to a halt with little action and an awful lot of libretto, what could have been a chore to watch was quite engaging with a great production and terrific cast. The audience loved it as well, although unlike Adriana Lecouvreur, no teddy bears were thrown from the circle. Conductor Semyon Bychkov received some well deserved cheers for keeping this performance engaging and fluid.
And in case you missed it, and will not be able to make the final two performances, the Radio 3 broadcast is available on iPlayer until the end of the week.